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How Thought Experiments Increase Understanding

In Michael T. Stuart, Yiftach Fehige & James Robert Brown (eds.), The Routledge Companion to Thought Experiments. London: Routledge. pp. 526-544 (2018)

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  1. The Forever War: understanding, science fiction, and thought experiments.Harald Wiltsche - 2019 - Synthese 198 (4):3675-3698.
    The aim of this paper is to show that scientific thought experiments and works of science fiction are highly suitable tools for facilitating and increasing understanding of science. After comparing one of Einstein’s most famous thought experiments with the science fiction novel “The Forever War”, I shall argue that both proceed similarly in making some of the more outlandish consequences of special relativity theory intelligible. However, as I will also point out, understanding in thought experiments and understanding in science fiction (...)
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  • Understanding metaphorical understanding (literally).Michael T. Stuart & Daniel Wilkenfeld - 2022 - European Journal for Philosophy of Science 12 (3):1-20.
    Metaphors are found all throughout science: in published papers, working hypotheses, policy documents, lecture slides, grant proposals, and press releases. They serve different functions, but perhaps most striking is the way they enable understanding, of a theory, phenomenon, or idea. In this paper, we leverage recent advances on the nature of metaphor and the nature of understanding to explore how they accomplish this feat. We attempt to shift the focus away from the epistemic value of the content of metaphors, to (...)
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  • Towards a dual process epistemology of imagination.Michael T. Stuart - 2019 - Synthese (2):1-22.
    Sometimes we learn through the use of imagination. The epistemology of imagination asks how this is possible. One barrier to progress on this question has been a lack of agreement on how to characterize imagination; for example, is imagination a mental state, ability, character trait, or cognitive process? This paper argues that we should characterize imagination as a cognitive ability, exercises of which are cognitive processes. Following dual process theories of cognition developed in cognitive science, the set of imaginative processes (...)
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  • Scientists are Epistemic Consequentialists about Imagination.Michael T. Stuart - forthcoming - Philosophy of Science:1-22.
    Scientists imagine for epistemic reasons, and these imaginings can be better or worse. But what does it mean for an imagining to be epistemically better or worse? There are at least three metaepistemological frameworks that present different answers to this question: epistemological consequentialism, deontic epistemology, and virtue epistemology. This paper presents empirical evidence that scientists adopt each of these different epistemic frameworks with respect to imagination, but argues that the way they do this is best explained if scientists are fundamentally (...)
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  • Peeking Inside the Black Box: A New Kind of Scientific Visualization.Michael T. Stuart & Nancy J. Nersessian - 2018 - Minds and Machines 29 (1):87-107.
    Computational systems biologists create and manipulate computational models of biological systems, but they do not always have straightforward epistemic access to the content and behavioural profile of such models because of their length, coding idiosyncrasies, and formal complexity. This creates difficulties both for modellers in their research groups and for their bioscience collaborators who rely on these models. In this paper we introduce a new kind of visualization that was developed to address just this sort of epistemic opacity. The visualization (...)
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  • The Method of Cases in Context. [REVIEW]Alison Springle - 2019 - International Journal of Philosophical Studies 27 (4):597-608.
    Volume 27, Issue 4, October 2019, Page 597-608.
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  • Scientific understanding in the Aharonov‐Bohm effect.Elay Shech - 2022 - Theoria 88 (5):943-971.
    By appealing to resources found in the scientific understanding literature, I identify in what senses idealisations afford understanding in the context of the (magnetic) Aharonov-Bohm effect. Three types of concepts of understanding are discussed: understanding-what, which has to do with understanding a phenomenon; understanding-with, which has to do with understanding a scientific theory; and understanding-why, which has to do with the reason some phenomenon occurs. Consequently, I outline an account of understanding-with that is suggested by the historical controversy surrounding the (...)
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  • Machine understanding and deep learning representation.Elay Shech & Michael Tamir - 2023 - Synthese 201 (2):1-27.
    Practical ability manifested through robust and reliable task performance, as well as information relevance and well-structured representation, are key factors indicative of understanding in the philosophical literature. We explore these factors in the context of deep learning, identifying prominent patterns in how the results of these algorithms represent information. While the estimation applications of modern neural networks do not qualify as the mental activity of persons, we argue that coupling analyses from philosophical accounts with the empirical and theoretical basis for (...)
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  • Explanatory pragmatism: a context-sensitive framework for explainable medical AI.Diana Robinson & Rune Nyrup - 2022 - Ethics and Information Technology 24 (1).
    Explainable artificial intelligence (XAI) is an emerging, multidisciplinary field of research that seeks to develop methods and tools for making AI systems more explainable or interpretable. XAI researchers increasingly recognise explainability as a context-, audience- and purpose-sensitive phenomenon, rather than a single well-defined property that can be directly measured and optimised. However, since there is currently no overarching definition of explainability, this poses a risk of miscommunication between the many different researchers within this multidisciplinary space. This is the problem we (...)
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  • X-Phi and Impartiality Thought Experiments: Investigating the Veil of Ignorance.Norbert Paulo & Thomas Pölzler - 2020 - Diametros 17 (64):72-89.
    This paper discusses “impartiality thought experiments”, i.e., thought experiments that attempt to generate intuitions which are unaffected by personal characteristics such as age, gender or race. We focus on the most prominent impartiality thought experiment, the Veil of Ignorance (VOI), and show that both in its original Rawlsian version and in a more generic version, empirical investigations can be normatively relevant in two ways: First, on the assumption that the VOI is effective and robust, if subjects dominantly favor a certain (...)
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  • What can we learn (and not learn) from thought experiments in black hole thermodynamics?Patricia Palacios & Rawad El Skaf - 2022 - Synthese 200 (6):1-27.
    Scientists investigating the thermal properties of black holes rely heavily on theoretical and non-empirical tools, such as mathematical derivations, analogue experiments and thought experiments. Although the use of mathematical derivations and analogue experiments in the context of black hole physics has recently received a great deal of attention among philosophers of science, the use of thought experiments (TEs) in that context has been almost completely neglected. In this paper, we will start filling this gap by systematically analyzing the epistemic role (...)
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  • Imagination in science.Alice Murphy - 2022 - Philosophy Compass 17 (6):e12836.
    While discussions of the imagination have been limited in philosophy of science, this is beginning to change. In recent years, a vast literature on imagination in science has emerged. This paper surveys the current field, including the changing attitudes towards the scientific imagination, the fiction view of models, how the imagination can lead to knowledge and understanding, and the value of different types of imagination. It ends with a discussion of the gaps in the current literature, indicating avenues for future (...)
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  • Political Epistemology: Debating the Burning Issue.Nenad Miščević - 2020 - Acta Analytica 35 (3):333-350.
    Political epistemology is rich with thought experiments. Their most systematic function in the field is the construction of ideal theory. We present a sketch of a kind of political thought experiments, in fact, our preferred version of contractualist ones, in Scanlonian tradition. Following the contemporary pattern, we use some retouch: slightly idealizing the participants, making them reasonable and well informed.. We offer an epistemically oriented analysis of the way contractualist political thought experiments function within the human cognitive apparatus, from mental (...)
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  • Response to Akagi, Hughes, and Springle. [REVIEW]Edouard Machery - 2019 - International Journal of Philosophical Studies 27 (4):608-623.
    I am extremely grateful to Mikio Akagi, Nick Hughes, and Alison Springle for their insightful and challenging comments on Philosophy Within Its Proper Bounds (Machery 2017). In this response, I wil...
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  • Thought Experiments and The Pragmatic Nature of Explanation.Panagiotis Karadimas - forthcoming - Foundations of Science:1-24.
    Different why-questions emerge under different contexts and require different information in order to be addressed. Hence a relevance relation can hardly be invariant across contexts. However, what is indeed common under any possible context is that all explananda require scientific information in order to be explained. So no scientific information is in principle explanatorily irrelevant, it only becomes so under certain contexts. In view of this, scientific thought experiments can offer explanations, should we analyze their representational strategies. Their representations involve (...)
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  • Understanding Philosophy.Michael Hannon & James Nguyen - forthcoming - Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy.
    What is the primary intellectual aim of philosophy? The standard view is that philosophy aims to provide true answers to philosophical questions. But if our aim is to settle controversy by answering such questions, our discipline is an embarrassing failure. Moreover, taking philosophy to aim at providing true answers to these questions leads to a variety of puzzles: How do we account for philosophical expertise? How is philosophical progress possible? Why do job search committees not care about the truth or (...)
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  • Epistemic Thought Experiments and Intuitions.Manhal Hamdo - 2023 - Springer Verlag.
    This work investigates intuitions' nature, demonstrating how philosophers can best use them in epistemology. First, the author considers several paradigmatic thought experiments in epistemology that depict the appeal to intuition. He then argues that the nature of thought experiment-generated intuitions is not best explained by an a priori Platonism. Second, the book instead develops and argues for a thin conception of epistemic intuitions. The account maintains that intuition is neither a priori nor a posteriori but multi-dimensional. It is an intentional (...)
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  • Semantic Imagination as Condition to our Linguistic Experience.Nazareno Eduardo de Almeida - 2017 - Principia: An International Journal of Epistemology 21 (3):339-378.
    The main purpose of this article is, from a semiotic perspective, arguing for the recognizing of a semantic role of the imagination as a necessary condition to our linguistic experience, regarded as an essential feature of the relations of our thought with the world through signification processes ; processes centered in but not reducible to discourse. The text is divided into three parts. The first part presents the traditional position in philosophy and cognitive sciences that had barred until recent times (...)
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  • Rigour and Thought Experiments: Burgess and Norton.James Robert Brown - 2022 - Axiomathes 32 (1):7-28.
    This article discusses the important and influential views of John Burgess on the nature of mathematical rigour and John Norton on the nature of thought experiments. Their accounts turn out to be surprisingly similar in spite of different subject matters. Among other things both require a reconstruction of the initial proof or thought experiment in order to officially evaluate them, even though we almost never do this in practice. The views of each are plausible and seem to solve interesting problems. (...)
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  • Reflective equilibrium and understanding.Christoph Baumberger & Georg Brun - 2020 - Synthese 198 (8):7923-7947.
    Elgin has presented an extensive defence of reflective equilibrium embedded in an epistemology which focuses on objectual understanding rather than ordinary propositional knowledge. This paper has two goals: to suggest an account of reflective equilibrium which is sympathetic to Elgin’s but includes a range of further developments, and to analyse its role in an account of understanding. We first address the structure of reflective equilibrium as a target state and argue that reflective equilibrium requires more than an equilibrium in the (...)
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  • Imagination and Creativity in the Scientific Realm.Alice Murphy - 2024 - In Amy Kind & Julia Langkau (eds.), Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Imagination and Creativity. Oxford University Press.
    Historically left to the margins, the topics of imagination and creativity have gained prominence in philosophy of science, challenging the once dominant distinction between ‘context of discovery’ and ‘context of justification’. The aim of this chapter is to explore imagination and creativity starting from issues within contemporary philosophy of science, making connections to these topics in other domains along the way. It discusses the recent literature on the role of imagination in models and thought experiments, and their comparison with fictions. (...)
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  • Understanding in Medicine.Varga Somogy - 2023 - Erkenntnis.
    This paper aims to clarify the nature of understanding in medicine. The first part describes in more detail what it means to understand something and links a type of understanding (i.e., objectual understanding) to explanations. The second part proceeds to investigate what objectual understanding of a disease (i.e., biomedical understanding) requires by considering the case of scurvy from the history of medi- cine. The main hypothesis is that grasping a mechanistic explanation of a condi- tion is necessary for a biomedical (...)
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  • The future won’t be pretty: The nature and value of ugly, AI-designed experiments.Michael T. Stuart - 2023 - In Milena Ivanova & Alice Murphy (eds.), The Aesthetics of Scientific Experiments. London: Routledge.
    Can an ugly experiment be a good experiment? Philosophers have identified many beautiful experiments and explored ways in which their beauty might be connected to their epistemic value. In contrast, the present chapter seeks out (and celebrates) ugly experiments. Among the ugliest are those being designed by AI algorithms. Interestingly, in the contexts where such experiments tend to be deployed, low aesthetic value correlates with high epistemic value. In other words, ugly experiments can be good. Given this, we should conclude (...)
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  • Thought Experiments.Yiftach J. H. Fehige & James R. Brown - 2010 - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy 25 (1):135-142.
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  • The Aesthetic and Literary Qualities of Scientific Thought Experiments.Alice Murphy - 2020 - In Milena Ivanova & Steven French (eds.), The Aesthetics of Science: Beauty, Imagination and Understanding.
    Is there a role for aesthetic judgements in science? One aspect of scientific practice, the use of thought experiments, has a clear aesthetic dimension. Thought experiments are creatively produced artefacts that are designed to engage the imagination. Comparisons have been made between scientific (and philosophical) thought experiments and other aesthetically appreciated objects. In particular, thought experiments are said to share qualities with literary fiction as they invite us to imagine a fictional scenario and often have a narrative form (Elgin 2014). (...)
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  • Thought Experiments and the Scientific Imagination.Alice Murphy - 2020 - Dissertation, University of Leeds
    Thought experiments (TEs) are important tools in science, used to both undermine and support theories, and communicate and explain complex phenomena. Their interest within philosophy of science has been dominated by a narrow question: How do TEs increase knowledge? My aim is to push beyond this to consider their broader value in scientific practice. I do this through an investigation into the scientific imagination. Part one explores questions regarding TEs as “experiments in the imagination” via a debate concerning the epistemic (...)
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  • The multifaceted role of imagination in science and religion. A critical examination of its epistemic, creative and meaning-making functions.Ingrid Malm Lindberg - 2021 - Dissertation, Uppsala University
    The main purpose of this dissertation is to examine critically and discuss the role of imagination in science and religion, with particular emphasis on its possible epistemic, creative, and meaning-making functions. In order to answer my research questions, I apply theories and concepts from contemporary philosophy of mind on scientific and religious practices. This framework allows me to explore the mental state of imagination, not as an isolated phenomenon but, rather, as one of many mental states that co-exist and interplay (...)
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